The voices the BCCI doesn’t hear

A compelling dialog between Harsha Bhogle and Rahul Dravid is easily the highlight of the day. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full audio/transcript version. And this is the money quote:

“We must have our own domestic calendar, or six or seven months that are ideal for us to play cricket. And play our quota of six Tests and a certain set number of ODIs during that period, and then work around that,” he said. “If we do that, at least during those six or seven months, everyone knows there’s going to be cricket in these venues. That’s very important.

“Everyone around the world needs to recognize that Test cricket needs to thrive in India. Everyone knows now that it is important Test cricket succeeds in India for it to succeed worldwide as well,” he said. “People have to come to this realization in some other countries and recognize that India now needs to have a set international calendar for the benefit of the world game really.”

Read the whole, and what strikes you is how much thought Dravid has put into this, and how evolved his thinking is. This particular dialog does not merely make the case for a careful recalibration of India’s cricketing calendar — at a larger level, it makes the far more eloquent case that what Indian cricket needs, at a time of great flux, is for the BCCI to incorporate intelligent, articulate players/former players into its management structure, and to give them the responsibility for a total revamp of our cricket.

Let the politicians hog the glory and line their pockets, if they must — but let’s get players [not the time servers, the usual suspects who suck up to the organization in return for the opportunity to make some bucks being permanently ensconced in the commentary box and ‘running’ various ‘committees’] involved in the hands on running of the game.

Cricket clips

# The admin interface on this blog shows you the latest comments right on top — and as it happens, the first comment I saw this morning was tagged to a Chris Broad post, from a certain John who apparently gets his jollies reading all the “crazies” who ramble on in the wake of controversies. I hate disappointing the public, so here’s more “ranting”:

The Australians always seem to get away. Whatever their transgressions on the field, invariably it is their opponents who end up paying a price. Somehow or the other, teams playing against the Aussies seem to invite the match referee’s wrath.

That is why I am not looking at the most recent incident in the Australia-West Indies series in isolation. In the Delhi Test against us, my last, the one that earned Gautam Gambhir a ban for having a go at Watson, the same umpire and the match referee were officiating.

At that time, the umpire Billy Bowden didn’t see it fit to report Simon Katich who had later obstructed Gautam and the match referee Chris Broad too didn’t bother to act on his own or follow it up with the onfield umpires even though it was very much evident on TV. And as on that occasion, the provocateurs got away in Perth too, with Haddin and Johnson receiving minor reprimands.

There doesn’t seem to be any punishment forthcoming for someone who provokes and that to me is against the principles of natural justice.

Dear John, the “crazy” who wrote that is former India captain Anil Kumble (who, most famously, also said this). Getting to be a fairly crowded asylum, innit? Here’s more “lunacy” — from Chris Gayle. And strangely, Ricky Ponting seems to think us crazies may actually be on to something.

#The weekend’s action at the Centurion and the WACA provided the perfect coda to a couple of months of fascinating cricket. Make that Test cricket. For all the tons of runs that were scored in the “thrash the bowlers” versions of the game, the final quarter of the year has been memorable for Test cricket action between Sri Lanka and India; between a New Zealand and a Pakistan intent on examining the limits of their own frailities; between an Australia that prematurely wrote the opposition off and a West Indies unit that re-discovered talent, spark, and the will to fight; and between a conservative South Africa hoping for a win and a tentative England hoping not to lose. Ian Chappell’s summation of the field comes apropos.

# Test cricket has been compelling, but the crowds haven’t felt compelled to come out in their numbers. That’s the sort of thing that triggers laments on the ‘Test cricket is dying’ lines — but perhaps there is another explanation? Here’s Gideon Haigh:

Frankly, for what English cricket fans pay to watch Test matches, the security indignities they undergo, the general dilapidation of grounds and the killjoy prohibitions of administrators, they should be allowed to parade in the nude if they so wish. But there’s the rub. Crowds, in general, are simply assumed, like sightscreens and drinks breaks, and reported with a similar degree of understanding by journalists high above them in air-conditioned comfort, who haven’t had to pay to get in.

Nobody speaks for them: they have no association, no lobbyists, no agents, no spin doctors, no ghost writers. Who has protested the scurvy treatment of fans in Kolkata and Johannesburg, deprived of international cricket by ludicrous administrative turf wars? Where were the thundering denunciations in England when the ECB cancelled a Twenty20 Cup quarter-final 10 minutes before the start because of a dispute about a player’s registration, thereby wasting the journeys of 4000 hapless fans? When wronged, fans have no recourse but the withdrawal of their interest – a self-penalisation.

The main reason for this indifference to the spectator’s lot, in administrative circles at least, is television. For 20 years and more, cricket has been obsessed with its telegenia – how to improve the experience for viewers, and so to maximise the value of the game as a media property. And as viewers have grown in financial importance, so live spectators have diminished.

Crowds flowing through the turnstiles — or not — have become irrelevant to the game’s financial health. But to therefore dismiss diminishing live audiences is, Haigh suggests, short-sighted.

In this unspoken shared belief among administrators that somehow it is immaterial if crowds no longer gather, and that only the vast, diffuse, invisible audience of viewers counts, lies the seeds of a grave crisis for cricket. In the most straightforward sense, crowds matter aesthetically, in a way ratings never can. They ratify by their presence an occasion’s importance; they dramatise by their passion a game’s excitement; they negate by their absence an event’s significance. Tendulkar’s 12,000th Test run should have been one of the great moments of Indian cricket; it will be remembered instead, as even ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat noted, with dismay and disillusionment.

Those who trouble to attend cricket are also its core constituency; to set aside a day for a Test or a one-day international involves a huge investment of time and money, which deserves proportional return. Yet the members of this core are being treated as political parties sometimes treat their most loyal voters, and listed corporations their most steadfast small shareholders: marginalising and alienating them as they take them for granted – and no party or company has done this long and prospered. On the contrary, commercial organisations dependent on public patronage lavish extraordinary efforts on keeping their most loyal customers, encouraging them to return by loyalty cards, bonus programmes and other incentive systems. Why does cricket, so purportedly savvy in the ways of commerce, care so little? Australian golf might have looked a little ludicrous at the Masters last month with its serpentine queues, star-struck melees and striving for church-like quiet – but at least it was trying.

#Headline writers have been having a field day with the outing of Tiger Woods’ latest mistress, bringing the tally thus far to 18 — the puerile golf course analogy apparently proves too hard to resist. Meanwhile, in Cuttack and in their homes across the country, Indian cricketers must be laughing their heads off — the newest among them has notched up far more ‘conquests’ than Woods with his stature, his charismatic looks  and all his billions can only dream of.

I’ve never been able to figure this out. We expect a Gandhi, a Mother Teresa, to provide us a moral compass to chart our lives by, but we do not simultaneously expect them to entertain us. Why then is that not the case in reverse? Why is it not enough for our athletes, our sports stars, to entertain us? Why must they also set “moral examples” for the young?

The two most common answers I get are, oh, but they are in the public eye and, two, our children idolize them. As far as the first goes, so too are politicians — but we accept their affairs, their involvements in crimes ranging from mega corruption to murder with equanimity and even pick potential jailbirds to lead our states, our country. Apparently it is okay for those who would chart our futures to be morally flawed, but not our sportsmen. And as far as our children’s idolatry goes, what then are parents for if they cannot steer their children towards heroes more worthy of moral emulation?

My friend — and favorite sports writer — Rohit Brijnath nails it in this lovely piece in the weekend edition of Mint. An extended clip:

But I rarely go to stadiums expecting lessons in morality. These aren’t arenas of real bravery for this isn’t real life. These weren’t my guides, not my North Stars. My heroes are different, they are ordinary people taking on life, they are my parents, teachers, friends who grapple patiently with troubled kids, they are families who take care of the ill with a selfless love, they are preachers of tolerance.

I have expectations of the athlete, especially the great ones, for with fame arrives responsibility. Certainly he must obey the rules, stay away from gunfights in nightclubs, respect the law, conduct himself appropriately when representing his country. It is not a difficult list. Roger Federer meets it nicely. But not everyone.

But then it gets tricky. What moral standard do we hold the athlete to, a higher one than we have for ourselves? Marriage is beautiful and we are unimpressed by the adulterer, but do we hound them from our groups of friends and from our offices? Is Tiger Woods different, worth such public scorn, because he portrayed himself as a virtuous family man? It would appear so. And as much as the tawdriness of it all, the sheer number of infidelities, what seems to upset people is also the deception. He fooled us, this billionaire hero. He made us buy his shirts while he was taking his off.

What we tend to forget is that the great athlete presents to us an image. On that basis we claim to know him, but we really don’t. Andre Agassi’s revealing autobiography, Open, suggested our view of him was almost entirely inaccurate. Woods is similarly a mystery. We know him as outrageous golfer, bland interviewee, smiling salesman. Beyond that he is hidden. It suited him. His golf was perfect, his trousers creased, his shoes shined, and so he let us assume the rest of his life was as polished. The point is this: He should have known better than to do what he did, but so should we have to have swallowed his myth.

# There’s a one-day game due to be played this afternoon, but all that, and more, tomorrow. Have people to meet, and a packer coming home for a preliminary ‘recce’. Later, peoples…

Looking good versus bowling good

In his column in the Hindustan Times, Anil Kumble writes of Ishant Sharma, thus:

What can be controlled is Ishant Sharma’s workload. He may be playing a lot but it is still important for him to get in a lot more overs. Most of the training time is taken up by gym work, which adds strength but you have to include a lot of sprinting as well to ensure that the rhythm is right. The challenge is to get the balance of cricketing skills, strength and cardiovascular training. The skills part is, naturally, most important and it is also necessary to realize that each person is made differently.

Which is why it is paramount that one understands the body quickly. Ishant is a young man but he would do well to understand what works best for him and apply that to his bowling and training. He’s also a thinking bowler and with the right guidance, he should soon be firing again.

Irfan after Pakistan

Irfan after Pakistan

Perhaps, he could have been tried with the new ball but in a short tournament such as this and after you have lost the first game, you don’t want to experiment. Also, the team combination is what decides who gets the new ball. When Praveen Kumar comes in for RP Singh, you have to give him the new ball as he relies on swing.

Ishant is not the only one — a more famous case is that of Irfan Pathan. In Australia and Pakistan, at his peak, he was whippet-lean, and his rhythm was spot on. During the hiatus after that tour, Irfan hit the gym with a vengeance, came back ‘pumped’ — and immediately thereafter, lost his bowling skills and has never regained them since.

The problem with heavy gym work — especially the kind that involves hard core pumping iron — is that it develops exactly the wrong kind of muscles. The shoulders and ‘wings’ develop — and tighten. And with that, the original bowling action is lost; the arm doesn’t come over as fluidly. Pace and control are the first casualties and once those are gone, confidence erodes and even the variations that worked so well for the bowler are, when delivered at half pace, less effective.

If it’s that simple, wouldn’t you reckon the bowler would know? Equally, that the support staff of coach and physio would spot the danger and move the bowler away from heavy iron work and into the kind of exercises that meet his requirements?

Yes — if the bowler will listen. And it is not just the bowlers — the malaise is fairly prevalent among the younger lot of cricketers. A former coach of India once told me that the ‘kids’ were only interested in building what he called “T-shirt muscles” — the kind you can flaunt in tight Ts, but are totally useless on a cricket field.

“They spend hours in the gym pumping iron,” he said, “and then when their game goes to pieces and you tell them they are not fit, they don’t get it — look at the time we spend in the gym, they argue, failing to understand that this is precisely the problem.”

Anil’s been there and seen all that; his advice to Ishant is good. Remains to be seen, though, if the bowler will take it.

Ishant, too, is top of the mind for Harsha in his last column.

But most dramatic, and disappointing for Indian cricket, was the decline of Ishant Sharma and RP Singh. Coming on the heels of similar problems with Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel and Sreesanth, it is a question that requires a very serious assessement. Good bowlers bowl well for ten years with the occasional bad period in between, not for two years or a season here and a season there. Could it be too much cricket? Could it too much in the mind? Could it be too little in it?

Inevitably then, the question will be what next? India cannot afford to lose Ishant and RP Singh but for the moment, a period of contemplation might be right. I wonder if players are encouraged to come up with their own solutions because one of the pitfalls of having too many coaches is that players stop becoming very good at thinking for themselves. As an observer I would love to know what these two think about this decline.

Right, just got back after three days away — and there’s an overflowing in-tray to deal with. Back here much later, folks — random doodles, as always, here.

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

During a recent conversation, Harsha Bhogle had argued the case for reworking the structure of domestic cricket in India. Shifting to a franchise-driven model would, he argued, bring in more revenues, improve the quality of the game, and enhance competitiveness.

The problem with such suggestions is, where do you start? You can clearly see the Utopian ideal, but you can see with equal clarity that there is no way out of the vicious cycle the game is trapped in. The only ones who can bring about the change are the associations — and they are also the ones who stand to lose everything if change happens, and thus have a deeply vested interest in maintaining the status quo ante.

Some revolutions begin with a blood and thunder storming of the Bastille, but more often, radical change has small beginnings, Harsha suggested later, once the interview proper was over and we were chatting of this and that.

He might have a point, judging by the story of the Karnataka Premier League.

For starters, it avoids the mistake the ICL made and stakes out territory the heavy hitters have no interest in. To wit, state-level domestic cricket which, in terms of interest, ranks even lower than the Ranji and other national competitions.

The teams are paid for and operated by private franchises who are prepared, for a variety of reasons, to pay to promote the sport — thus fulfilling one of the key points of Harsha’s argument.

The league provides a crisp, focused competition; it creates a platform — and generates additional employment — for talent that would otherwise have gone unnoticed; it generates spectator interest within the defined geography [8000 people for one of the games? You don’t get that for a Ranji final].

The most interesting aspect, for me, is that the KPL is an example of how public-private partnerships can work to the benefit of both — the IPL model, scaled down to the grassroots. While on this, I was somewhat surprised by Anil Kumble’s reaction to the development:

The decision to go with the franchise system drew some flak, notably from Kumble and Srinath, who both wondered why the KSCA needed external financial support to run the league when it receives a grant from the BCCI. Kumble was typically blunt: “In its current form, it would allow a backdoor entry into the KSCA for people not passionate about cricket,” he said.

Anil has one of the most balanced voices in Indian cricket, hence my surprise at his unstated subtext: that ‘passion for cricket’ is exclusive to those who are part of the administration.

While the lack of infrastructure in the districts remains a problem, the KSCA realises the need to move more of the tournament outside Bangalore, which hosted all but six of the 31 games this season. “We are planning to go, from the next edition onwards, to other locations in Karnataka,” Srikantadatta Wadiyar, a descendant of the Mysore royal family and current KSCA president, says. “The idea is to ultimately take it to the respective locations and zones [of the franchises].”

The problem and solution are closely interlinked. There is no infrastructure in the districts because they don’t get sufficient quality cricket to require the expenditure; take cricket into the hinterlands, and the infrastructure will follow. Additionally:

The franchises are also looking ahead to the next season. Mangalore has announced its plans to start an academy to spot and groom talent. Belgaum is looking at providing equipment and forming teams within its catchment area, and holding intra-zone tournaments. “We are committed to four tournaments a year in Belgaum,” Hoover says. “We will club some areas together and make a team; we plan to have five or six such teams, who will then face off against each other.”

This is the other point that Harsha mentioned — and one that directly refutes Anil’s contention. The KSCA gets grants from the BCCI and hence has no real interest in developing talent. Private franchises, which put money where the association’s mouth is, are however aware that the players are its stock in trade, and thus tend to be more proactive.

The biggest plus of the KPL is that it provides a model — of partnership between franchises, the official association, and the local media — that can be transplanted to other regions. Do that, and you have created a platform to discover and hone fresh talent, re-ignited spectator interest at the domestic level, provided additional employment opportunities to a whole host of players currently on the outside of the money trough looking in, and created a feeder system for the IPL.

What’s not to like?

Addendum: Okay, Srikanth answers that question in the comments field:

I agree the concept of KPL is worth it… I, being a Kannadiga, was eager to see the talent from remote places of Karnataka to take part in KPL. Only then we may get raw talent with unique approach to the game.

However, there was a glitch in this edition of KPL, there were 8 franchises and each squad was filled with students from ex-cricketers’ academies… The local talents (from Belagaum, Mangalore, Davangere etc) were limited to 2 to 4 per squad and those guys hardly got a chance to be a part of playing 11.

I hope to see this issue not getting repeated next edition of KPL, as KPL would be held across various venues in Karnataka from next season.

Right, that’s an unnecessary glitch that hopefully will get sorted out in edition two.

In passing, the franchise structure will work to optimum if each franchise takes responsibility for developing its own talent bank. An interesting option could be tie-ups with various cricket academies — with, of course, the provision that selection be based on merit, not on ‘influence’.